Piecing the puzzle

Some people may have read of the exciting news that some of my writing is being published in a new ‘Hidden Sussex Anthology.’ I have been asked if I would read at the launch of the book, and felt the familiar quiet voice of the little girl with pigtails whispering in my ear, ‘You are not worthy’. That little voice, coupled with my usual high-dose of imposter syndrome pushed me into a spin of anxiety. The ‘what-ifs’ started: What if people realise I am not a ‘proper’ writer just a blogger?; What if what I say is so obvious, and inconsequential they wonder why I’ve bothered writing?; What if they look at me and see the uncertainty in my eyes? After all many other people, the ‘proper writers’, have said similar things far more eloquently and better than I.

I tried to pull myself together and give my imposter-self a shake. To the little girl I gave a hug of acknowledgement. I have done this regularly since I discovered her existence in my first writing ‘The Liberating Rollercoaster’, saying to her as I do often, “Sorry, I will not listen to those words today – of course you were worthy then, and you are still worthy of love and respect.” Recently I explained to a loved one what a difference my writing has made to me, from the first piece of writing in which I remembered that early memory of myself as the little girl in the puddle of her own making.

I loved sitting with my dad to play with jigsaw puzzles. It was a love we shared and a special time together – a warm memory. We would sit together at the table and search through the big box of 1000 different shaped pieces to find the edges first. This was the method he taught me, and one I still abide by, always thinking of him with a smile, and with love. We would slot together those pieces to make the outside edge, before choosing some particular colour or pattern to bind those outside bits into the whole. Occasionally we would need to make sense of the pattern on a piece by looking at the picture on the box. We might need to look for a particular strange-shaped bit which we could see was needed because of the hole that had been formed by joining other pieces. I remember the frustration of being sent to bed as the night was late, frustrated because we were so close to the end, knowing that when I got up it would be finished. Sure enough I would rush downstairs, rubbing the sleep out my eyes, and there would be the final completed picture revealed in puzzle-form. I was always sad when the puzzle and the joy of building, and our shared connection was completed. For many years I never got to put in the last piece of any jigsaw, until the very last puzzle that my dad and I did together, a fiendishly difficult picture of a lion, made up of miniature pictures of lions and lionesses. He was not well and unable to sit comfortably for long, or see very well. The medication had stopped him concentrating, but he tried desperately to engage in our shared pastime. I knew how unwell he was when he said, “You finish it Annie.” After I had finished it the puzzle sat on his table for a while, until he was feeling slightly brighter. He glued that puzzle to a board and gave it me. It sits on my wall as a memory of him. Pieces never to be unglued.

The realisation that my early experience as a small child had informed the way I approached the world, opened the door to lost pieces falling into place. It became evident that my identity had been something unexplored and pushed down deep inside of me, unknown. I had the edges, but the middle pieces that held those edges together were missing. Each new journey into reflective writing, explored good and bad memories like looking at the picture on the box to gather a sense of where the pieces fit. I came to understand ideas which had long troubled me; What did being of mixed-heritage mean to me? What was my black culture? How did being seen as neither truly black by some, nor truly ‘British’ to others, really mean? How did I fit within a place that was formed from a white perspective when I was so obviously ‘other’? How did what I had experienced make me who I am?

A late night book reading before bed helped some pieces to fall into place. I have been reading ‘Don’t touch my hair’ by Emma Dibiri when a statement (p.103) jumped out and spoke to me:

“It almost doesn’t matter what we do. Being a women who is mixed […] whatever way I choose to live my life, no matter what way I choose to present myself, somebody […] has a problem with it, has a problem with me. […] In different contexts I’ve been told I’m too black, I’m too white, I’m too stuck-up, I’m too light-skinned, I think I’m too nice, I’m too posh […], blah, blah [!] blah. The best option is to do what feels authentic to me. I see no need to conform to any limited definition. There is a great freedom in that. So I just do me, whatever feels right. And so should you!”

I heard those words and smiled inside and out. I have found freedom in writing.

When I told my dear one about the difference my writing had made to me, I explained that looking back at the years, I have realised that my whole demeanour had been shaped by my experiences. When I was a young person I can remember walking with my head held high, tall and upright. I remember a lovely neighbour ‘Aunty Hazel’ telling me she loved the way I walked, “You have such a lovely stature. Calm and serene. You look like you are comfortable in the world, but like you are meeting everything with excitement.” Looking back I realise that I have become bowed down, weighted with things that had happened to me. I understand that some of that was caused by physical health issues that have dogged my adult life. Some of it was about being a tall person with people around who are shorter. However much of it came from mental traumas. Micro-aggressions in being a black woman which weigh heavy on the shoulders; trying to make myself shrink so that I am not noticed as the only black person in the sea of white faces; avoiding eye-contact or not raising my voice for fear of being seen and pointed out as ‘other’. All of these things have caused me to stoop visibly through carrying this load deep inside, whilst wearing the smile that everyone expected. Since I have started writing and confronting some of my fears and uncertainties and have raised my ‘little voice in a noisy world’ I have noticed I have begun to walk with my back straighter, and my head held high. Although maybe not a ‘proper writer’ I am writing. I am here. I am free and writing has been my liberator. I am who I am. I am just ‘doing me’.

And so I finish my piece to read at the book launch and know I will be nervous of course. The little girl will whisper in my ear, the feeling of imposter will emerge, but I now understand that I can just accept that and move on, because my puzzle is not complete. I have writing still to do to explore who I am, and pieces yet to find. As I find the strange-shaped bits I will need to move them around to see where they fit within the edges, or even if they are a piece for my puzzle at all. I am not sure what picture will be created at the end, I’m not sure it really matters. I hope that what I leave behind though will be an image that my family and friends will look at with love because we have created it together, just as I look at that lion.